What makes the children’s television show, Steven Universe, so compelling? I must confess that I joined the bandwagon pretty late and after some resistance. But, one week and 41 episodes later, I am hooked!
Steven Universe is about the titular character, Steven Universe, who is raised by the Crystal Gems, three magical aliens, in the resort town of Beach City. Half-human, half-gem, Steven spends half of the first season learning to control his magical gem powers with the guidance of his family and support of his friends and the other half on his own sort of wacky adventures where he develops other skills like empathy and how to emotionally support the people he cares about. Despite the idea floating around that this show, like others such as Adventure Time, is actually developed for young adults and not children, the show demonstrates some classic children’s show formatting:
- 15 minute episode segments
- The main character is a boy with a strange cohort of family and friends
- Steven does not participate in the institutions of childhood (school, church, sports teams)
- Conflicts are resolved within the time frame of one episode
- Characters verbalize their conflicts and tensions with other characters
- Episode themes are clearly articulated in dialogue (clear morals)
Premiering in November 2013, the show is a hit. And, not just a hit with children, but with teens and young adults as well. A simple Tumblr search finds fan art, fan fiction, theories and speculation, and even a blog that imagines text message conversations the characters would exchange. A search on DeviantArt found over 70,000 pieces on Steven Universe. It’s even been nominated for an Emmy in Outstanding Short-Form Animated Program. People watch this show and have a lot of feels.
But, again, what makes the show so compelling? I have a few ideas: The soft pastel animation is warm and friendly and light
The music is also upbeat, soft, and I think the ending theme (below) adds a bit of serious weight to the silliness of the plot
The references to other shows is evident. I’ve noticed references to Sailor Moon and other magical girl anime, video games such as Pokemon and Final Fantasy, and even films such as Lars and the Real Girl and A Hard Day’s Night. These references, like the references in many children’s shows, are meant to engage older viewers with material that is aimed producing a feeling of nostalgia. But, I find it difficult to view Steven Universe as simply catering to young adults to increase viewership. The influence of Japanese anime on the animation style not only attracts the viewership of young adults of the Internet generation, but it incorporates the style as part of a canon of American media influenced by anime that is actually quite extensive. Steven Universe may be a good example of “what happens when something moves across platforms and across national boundaries.”
Yet, where Steven Universe really seems to shine is in its creation of family dynamics. PBS Idea Channel explored the idea that Steven Universe expands the idea of family to include the nontraditional elements that make up Steven’s strange family. And, I could not agree more. Many of the episodes of Steven Universe focus on character development and the complicated relationships that Steven has with the other Crystal Gems: Garnet, Amethyst, and Pearl. The Gems act as both parental figures and siblings to Steven. They take care of him, provide support, embarrass him, misunderstand him, and provide him with the opportunities to take risks, to take on responsibility, and to learn to cope with failure and disappointment.
Each of the Gems takes on a primary role in their relationship with Steven. Amethyst takes on the role of the big sister, Pearl is the disciplinarian and tutor, and Garnet is the save-the-day-mom figure. In fact, the creator of the show, Rebecca Sugar, has stated that she based the Gems on the roles she took on in her relationship with her little brother, Steven. Sugar also draws upon theories of emotional development in the development of the show’s characters.
In the episode, Fusion Cuisine, Steven’s friend Connie tells her parents that Steven has a nuclear family in order to continue hanging out with him. Steven attempts to convince Connie’s parents that his family is normal, but when his plan fails, he and Connie attempt to run away. When Connie’s parents see the Gems disciplining Steven, they realize that the Gems are actually responsible parental figures and will continue to allow Connie and Steven to be friends. While I appreciated the ending of the episode, what allowed Steven’s family to be incorporated into the normative understanding of what constitutes family units is through the use of discipline in order to exert control. The Gems only convince Connie’s parents that they are worthy parental figures by grounding Steven after his attempt to runaway. Good parenting is seen as shutting down your child with love and doing things for their own good, despite their feelings on the matter (something Steven comes to resist a bit later).
Pearl: We would never starve you, but you will lose your TV privileges… for 1,000 years. Steven: No! The midseason pre-finale of “Under the knife”! How can you do this to me?! *cries slightly* Greg: *Disapproving look* Because we love you, Steven. Steven: *Groans* Dr. Maheswaran: Wow. That was a masterful use of the “because we love you” shutdown. I’m quite partial to the “it’s for your own good” myself.
There is nothing vague about these complex relationships. In typical children’s show fashion, the show does not dance around the issues it desperately wants to convey to the audience, but has the characters discuss and challenge particular ideas in dialogue.
“Man, why did Connie have to say I have one mother instead of zero… or three?” -Steven Universe
Steven actively tries to understand his relationships to the Gems. Notably, he doesn’t know the answer to the above question. Are they his mothers? Sisters? Guardians? Do they have to be only one of those things? I think that the Gems play all of these roles for Steven with much of the character development focuses on how Steven discovers his own role on the team (This is ignoring the very queer nature of the Gems themselves, which will probably be the subject of another post). What makes the show compelling then, could be the themes. Jack Halberstam argues that animated films succeed “to the extent to which they are able to address the disorderly child, the child who knows there is a bigger world out there beyond the family, if only he could reach it.” The discussion of topics that we normally would not expect from children’s media (due to the perception of silliness, frivolity/frivolousness, and that children must be protected from potentially harmful ideas) are exactly what makes them successful.
I would argue that allowing Steven to even ask such a question, the creators of Steven Universe are pushing the continuously ongoing discussion of the nature of childhood and the family unit in a positive and progressive direction. It’s a show for the queer child who might find family in a universe that only seems to become queerer.